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Archive for November, 2007

A light and crumbly fruitcake, Dundee Cake originated in 19th century Scotland as a commercially mass-produced cake from marmalade company, Keiller’s. Read a wonderfully-detailed account of the history, plus recipe and photo of Dundee Cake here. It’s also typical to decorate the Dundee Cake with concentric circles of split almonds, as you can also see in this photo/recipe. Read a more general history of fruit cake here.

With little more than quantities and a list of ingredients (“Raisins etc.”), Grandmother’s brief notes here assume one is familiar with how a Dundee Cake should taste, the cake-making techniques required to achieve that and perhaps also the conventions of decorating Dundee Cakes. Perhaps many people in the late 50s and 60s would have been well acquainted with Dundee Cakes, as hinted at by this Australian food history blog, which also reproduces the writer’s grandmother’s Dundee Cake recipe from the 1950s :) and says that these cakes were very popular at the time. Incidentally, the blog is by a professional historian of medieval history at the Australian National University!

Even though she was probably never short of anything she needed during her life, my grandmother was always very careful to not be wasteful. She kept drawers full of old receipts and cut-up scraps of paper — held together in neat piles by rubber bands — for scribbling notes on. This recipe, for example, has been scribbled on a tiny scrap of paper, folded and stained by rusty staples, possibly one of the blank end pages ripped out of a book from ‘Fine Art Publishers’, copyrighted and ‘Printed in England’. Grandma also hoarded cupboards full of used plastic bags, all neatly folded into squares, and to save on paper napkins, she would open a packet of them then painstakingly scissor each one into half so that we would only use the minimal amount of paper each time.

From what I hear of others from my grandmother’s generation, these habits of careful use of resources and hoarding things ‘just in case’ weren’t unusual. I’ve wondered whether this was a legacy of living through the hardships of World War II, or whether it was a hangover from days when convenience items such as pads of notepaper and plastic bags were not so cheap (or given away free!) and readily available as they are today. Ironically, the push for greater environmental consciousness is seeing us return to the thrifty ways of our grandparents’ times, or in today’s jargon, ‘ reduce, reuse and recycle’.

Dundee Cake

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Here’s another YWCA recipe, indicated by the ‘Y.W.’ notation in the top right-hand corner.

Earlier on, I’d already blogged about the history of commercially-produced ice cream in Singapore since the 1920s, and posted grandma’s notes for ‘perfect vanilla ice cream‘, taken from McCall’s women’s magazine.

This idea for Horlicks ice cream seems really way ahead of its time. In recent years the ice cream parlour, Island Creamery, has gained legions of fans for its ice-cream in unusual local flavours such as teh tarik, chendol, Nutella and of course, Horlicks!

Horlicks is another one of the late 19th century industrial food products that became household names in colonial Singapore by the 1920s and 30s (read the history of Horlicks here). You might already have encountered on this blog condensed and evaporated milk, as well as vegetable shortenings like Spry and Crisco. These new food products were often promoted using new, scientific principles of health and sanitation at the time. For example, in the early 1930s, the ‘Night Starvation’ theory was developed to promote Horlicks, and even now, Horlicks is branded as a sleeping aid. These might have been genuine claims but sometimes more due to the creativity of advertisers. Educating consumers on new food products was a serious business, as you can see from this collection of advertising cookbooks from America dating from 1878 to 1929.

With a huge growth in commercial products of the edible and non-edible kind in the early twentieth century, the field of advertising also became more sophisticated with an increasing body of theory and practical advice about it. In Malaya and Singapore, there was a need to produce advertisements that would appeal to local consumers and in the 1930s, local advertising agencies began to emerge to help international brands like Horlicks communicate to Asian consumers in the manner and language that would speak to them best. See these Horlicks advertisements taken from Singapore newspapers in 1930 — one appears to be an exact copy of an advertisement that might have appeared Britain but two contain Chinese proverbs:

Horlicks 1

Horlicks 2

Horlicks 3

After all that excitement about Horlicks and Horlicks ice cream in particular, that isn’t all there is to this recipe, which is actually a strawberry parfait that happens to be made with Horlicks ice cream! Strawberries in tropical Singapore? Certainly during the 1950s/60s when grandma was using this recipe, because even in 1930, foreign fruits and vegetables were imported by Cold Storage as well as other companies. Here’s an advertisement from by The Fresh Food and Refrigeration Company promoting strawberries in cartons!

Strawberries cartons

The recipe doesn’t clearly say so, but parfaits are layered frozen desserts which are always served in tall, slim glasses (the word ‘parfait’ refers to both the dessert as well as the glassware it’s served in).

Horlicks Strawberry Parfait A

Horlicks Strawberry Parfait B

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Nice having tea

I just came across this lovely photograph of my grandmother having tea, probably taken in the early 1930s. The British habit of afternoon tea was common amongst anglicised Asians in colonial Singapore, who continued this practice through later decades, long after Singapore had broken away from colonial rule. Growing up with my grandparents in the 1970s and 80s, tea at five o’clock was a daily family ritual.

In the photograph, notice the combination of British and Asian food customs. Next to the English-style tea set are a Chinese bowl and soup spoon as well as a Chinese tea cup. The large serving dish in the centre with a dark liquid as well as the bowls makes me think some kind of pudding was being eaten. Sago pudding, for example, was one of the tea time dishes in my family, and always eaten with a Chinese rice bowl and soup spoon.

Nice tea

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I have been waiting to get to this recipe :). Cream puffs were one of grandmother’s favourite things to make as she found choux pastry very easy to produce. I don’t recall her ever making them for me, but she often recalled how as a teenager in the early 1930s, she learnt to make them at YWCA cooking classes. Having perfected her cream puff making skills, she would make them for the tea parties her father held at their home every weekend for his friends and business clients.

Having heard her talk about cream puffs so much, a few years ago, I retrieved her cream puff recipes (there are a few more in this recipe notebook which I shall post later) and made my first attempt at choux pastry. It certainly wasn’t as easy as grandmother had led me to believe! At this time, grandma was already aged 90 or so and she couldn’t remember the finer points of choux pastry-making to guide me along, so I tried to read up on the web in addition to using her recipe notes. I was so frustrated with the results of my first attempt, that I immediately made a second batch, which I was even more disappointed with! But grandma was very happy I was baking her pet dish and gave the thumbs up to my mediocre cream puffs.

Actually, this is a recipe for choux pastry, as there are no instructions for the cream filling. Grandma told me to use Nestle tinned cream, as that was what she used in the past, and it’s still easily available in Singapore supermarkets.

Note the two sets of measurements, the ones on the left are one-third of the amounts on the right.

[28/12/07 update: see grandma’s alternative instructions for choux pastry here.]
[30/12/07 update: another recipe for cream puffs with custard filling here.]

[22/7/08 update: if you are really keen to go into the intricacies of making choux pastry, have a look a the tips here, and the recipes here and here.]

Cream Puff

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With commercial, sliced bread today full of questionable preservatives (especially calcium propionate, see for example, Fact Sheet on Bread Preservative (282 calcium propionate) and Bread Preservative Research), it’s always good to make your own bread at home if you can. Which is why I’ve been doing quite a bit of bread making recently – with a bread machine, I’m afraid :), and I was quite excited to see this bread recipe in grandmother’s notebook. There being so many different varieties of bread, I wonder what these bread rolls are like? Crusty on the outside, or more like soft buns?

Traditional bakeries in Singapore produced very soft, airy loaves of white bread in a tall rectangular shape. Usually the blackened crust would be cut off and the loaf sliced before being sold. There are few of these traditional Chinese bakeries left these days, and the commercial bread market is dominated by mass-production factory brands like Gardenia. I’m curious as to the origins of these Chinese bakeries (perhaps somewhat similar to the story behind the famous Polar Cafe?)and the broader history of bread in Singapore.

The story of commercial bread-making is a fascinating one as this account of the history of the industrialisation of bread-making in the USA by Aaron Bobrow-Strain, a politics academic, reveals. He mentions that an obsession with the whiteness of bread led to complaints in the first two decades of the 20th century that bakeries were whitening bread with ‘plaster of Paris, sulfate of lime, borax, bone, pipe clay, chalk, alum and other nefarious compounds’. There was even a debate in the US Supreme Court over whether bleaching flour with chlorine gas could be considered a criminal act. More generally, the article ‘traces the articulation of capital and bio-politics over the terrain of baking’.

I don’t recall ever having tried this technique of making a separate ‘yeast dough’ then mixing it into another dough later, even in my days of baking bread by hand (which was almost twenty years ago!). Note also the use of plain flour, as opposed to bread flour which has a higher proportion of gluten to give that chewy texture (as opposed to the crumbly texture of cake). I’ve found that plain flour gives a lighter, more airy texture to bread, whereas bread flour produces a more dense and chewy loaf. Also intriguing is the use of condensed milk in the yeast dough recipe (see here for my historical notes on condensed milk), most recipes call for milk and sugar as separate ingredients.

The four eggs will certainly make this a very rich bread. As I learnt from Prepared Pantry,

Typically, dough for rolls is a little richer—maybe with an egg added and a little more sugar—than most doughs for bread. 

Bread Rolls A

Bread Rolls B

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